Gateshead Crossroads Caring for Carers Conference

David addressed a packed hall when he spoke at the Gateshead Crossroads Caring for Carers Conference in the Sage Gateshead on Thursday 30th November 2006. David said :

David addresses the Conference
David addresses the Conference

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today, and grateful that so many of you have taken the time to come along for this conference to discuss the White Paper 'Our Health, Our Care, Our Say'.

I know that many of you will be experts in this field whereas I have to confess that, as a mere Member of Parliament, I am afraid that my speciality is to know a little about a great many subjects.

The White Paper, I am afraid, falls into that category and I know there will be those here who are well versed in its contents and understand it from a professional and a carers view far better than I.

I know its general aim is to changing the way in which social care services are provided. I agree that placing greater choice and control in the hands of people who use them should thereby make services more responsive to patient needs.

And I know that the aim of this 10 year plan to change the provision of services is also to prevent ill health and promote healthy lifestyles, with an ultimate aim of giving service users more independence, choice and control.

But I also know that many carers have reservations about the way in which the White Paper will translate into reality. I guess that the truth is, like many things, the plan is good in parts but there are other areas that need strengthening.

First though, I want to take you back to May 1997, when a much younger-looking Tony Blair took up residence in 10 Downing Street.

Britain before 1997 was a much less equal Britain.

There are still too many inequalities of course and much work to do, but gradually, under a determined Labour government, inequalities are being turned around.

For instance, nowadays, I'm more likely to get complaints that a constituent has waited a number of weeks for a hospital appointment - before 1997, it was months before you saw your hospital consultant; the other day, I was asked to sign petition calling for an increase in the £200 or £ 300 Winter Fuel Allowance - before 1997, there was no such allowance.

So I make these points to remind people of where we were. And the sheer fact of the economic turnaround that has been the major factor contributing to the development of a more equal society.

But inequality still exists. It has always been hard for some groups to play a full role in the work of the community. The disabled for instance, but this government has brought in measures to actively encourage and help disabled people back into work.

And the new Disability Rights Commission empowers disabled people in a way they have never before experienced.

Another group that has always had particular difficulties in juggling work and caring responsibilities is parents - usually mums - and I am proud to have supported the government when, in April 2003, parents of children under 6, and disabled children under 18, were given the right to ask their employer if they could work flexibly such as changing hours, or working from home.

It has not all been plain sailing, of course. Employers can refuse, but they must give good reasons and workers can appeal against a negative decision. So, another step forward.

But one group that certainly has enormous difficulties in taking a place in the world of work are working carers.

One of the stated needs of carers outlined in your programme today is "Help to balance family life, working life and their personal life with caring".

And the Work and Families Act, passed this June, will help working carers by extending the same rights of flexible working that families have enjoyed since 2003 to carers from next April onwards. Literally, it could mean the difference between staying in work or having to give up work.

Again, I know that many carers have reservations about the way in which the Act will help them, or indeed, if at all.

For instance, I know that many people were worried that the definition of a carer under the Act was going to be severely restrictive.

Earlier this month, we got that clarification.

So, now we know that married partners, near relatives and those of neither category that live at the same address as the person being cared for, will have these new rights.

I remain concerned though that - for example - a daughter caring for her father who lives close by but not in the same house, will not be able to exercise any right to flexible working. I hope that employers will look sympathetically at all carers in their workforce, and I and parliamentary colleagues will continue to press for a wider definition to encompass all working carers.

What I really want to do today is to focus on the inequality of the Carers' Allowance, particularly as it relates to working carers.

I acknowledge that another aspect of what is essentially the same problem also affects carers who then become pensioners. As your programme points out some 22% 0f carers are over 65, about 5,000 in Gateshead, but for now I want to focus on the resolution of one simple issue relating very specifically to working carers.

The Work and Families Act is estimated to benefit about 2 and a half million carers, who are struggling right now to balance work with caring responsibilities. These are people who are, literally, saving the state the job of having to look after people.

The estimated 6 million people who provide unpaid care in the UK save the state a mind-boggling £57 billion a year. If the state had to pick up the bill, through care in hospitals, residential accommodation or the home, the bill would be equivalent to running a second NHS, with a corresponding tax burden to pay for it.

But the cost of caring can't be defined purely in financial terms.

I know, from my own personal experience, how hard it can be.

The stress and emotional toll on the carer can be immense, and the potential cost to the health of the carer can be huge. Indeed, we know that people who provide high levels of care are twice as likely to become permanently sick or disabled themselves, and that is taking no account of factors that are harder to quantify, such as the social isolation, or the impact on the carer's own family.

As I know from my own experience, a simple matter like not being able to have a good night's sleep, can have an enormous impact upon a carer's sense of well-being.

And for this, for saving the state billions of pounds, a carer of working age can claim Carers' Allowance of £46 per week.

So I want to use the opportunity to talk to you today about a petition that I have started on the Carers' Allowance.

Its not demanding a huge increase in the allowance - although I look forward to the imminent statement about the annual uprating of benefits to include carers allowance, and have told the Secretary of State as much.

No, what the petition is asking for is simply to bring the working carers' allowance in line with other benefits so that the carer can earn more than the £84 limit, without losing entitlement to all of the allowance in one fell swoop.

As you know, if you are caring for someone for at least 35 hours per week, someone who is in receipt of either Attendance Allowance or the middle or higher rate of Disability Living Allowance, then you can claim the Carers' Allowance of £46.95 per week.

But there is an earnings threshold of £84 per week after some, pretty small, deductions have been made.

Earn over that threshold, even by a few pence, and you will lose your entire entitlement to the Carers' Allowance.

Whilst I acknowledge that the earnings limit is significantly higher now than its pre-April 2001 level of £50, I cannot, for the life of me, see how the total loss of the entitlement to benefit can be either fair or just.

And I certainly cannot see how it fits in with my Government's drive to a more equal society.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, this is the only benefit that still operates under this 'all or nothing' rule.

So surely it would be simple would it not, just to amend the rules relating to the Carers' Allowance, to bring it into line with other benefits in the UK that operate on a sliding scale - so that for every pound you earn over the threshold, a pound is taken off the carers' allowance?

Its not a recipe for riches, no carer is going to hit the jackpot on this one! But it would simply mean that a carer would know that their weekly income is going to be £130 per week whether it was £84 plus £46 per week, or £94 plus £36, or £100 plus £30.

Unfortunately, it has not proved so simple.

In my correspondence and my conversations with Ministers - even when I raised this in the House at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, I have found Ministers sympathetic, but not perhaps entirely understanding.

They comment - rightly - that this government has done much to directly help not only carers but also the sick and disabled that they care for.

They also, point out that financial help would be available via the tax credit system. True, but that brings me to the next problem I have with the Carers' Allowance.

A person working the 16 hours necessary to qualify for family tax credit, working at the new Minimum Wage levels of £5.35 (which came into force on 1 October) automatically earns £85.60.

And, as I know from at least one of my constituents, that - equally automatically - means that entitlement to the carers allowance has been lost.

I can only repeat - this unfairness and inequity is not, I am sure, what a Labour government intended to perpetuate. And it does rather take the gloss off one of Labour's great achievements - the National Minimum Wage. So my efforts to convince ministers that there needs to be change continues.

But why is it important for working carers to have a better deal?

The simple truth is, that the UK economy needs all the workers that it can get.

We cannot afford to exclude whole swathes of people from the working economy. It is morally wrong, and it runs counter to any efficient economic strategy for the 21st century.

From an economic, social and political imperative, it makes no sense to discourage carers from leading an active working life. And if we accept that, then it also follows that we should be doing what we can to encourage carers to stay working, and I do not see how the current rules relating to the carers allowance can contribute to that.

If you haven't already done so, I urge as many of you as possible to sign the petition, because representatives from the Carers' Association will be taking it down to London next week to hand it in to Downing Street.

Sadly, I wasn't able to make arrangements for us to meet Tony Blair in person - I understand he's caring for the children that afternoon -

but we will be able to hand the petition in to Number 10, and we are going to be able to later meet with the Minister, Anne McGuire, and pass on our comments about the Carers' Allowance.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank those who have helped amass signatures for the petition.

Many signed on-line via my website, but many more signed as a result of the hard work of people like Graham Lyell from the Carers Association who stood, with other members of the Association, for hours in local stores asking people to sign.

And I'd also like to thank Jeff Gray, from Gateshead Crossroads, for his efforts in getting signatures.

By my calculations, the petition has well over 1000 signatures now, a significant demonstration that people in the Gateshead area share our view that the earnings rule as it applies to the carers allowance is wrong and needs to be reviewed.

We're scheduled to hand it in to Downing Street next Thursday, and meet the Minister shortly afterwards. So watch this space!

Your programme says that carers need "a listening ear". I promise to provide that and do all I can to act on what I hear from carers in Gateshead.

Thank you for coming

Thank you for listening

But most of all - Thank You For Caring.

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Promoted by Ken Childs on behalf of David Clelland, both of 19 Ravensworth Road, Dunston, Gateshead. NE11 9AB